Kirsty Needham: The best part of my job is demystifying modern China

Interview by Molly O'Brien

Kirsty Needham began her career in journalism in 1994. Ten years later, she accepted an Australia-China Council fellowship to spend three months in China working as a journalist with the China Daily in Beijing, where her infatuation with the fascinating city began. 

Kirsty is now the China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering the diplomatic and trade relationship between Australia and China, China’s role in the global response to the North Korean nuclear problem, and the dramatic changes in the Chinese government as president Xi Jinping centralises power.

Fascinated by debunking the myths that surround China's capital, Kirsty's work helps inform Australians about the culture and politics of Australia's largest trading partner. 

Read more about her fascinating Beijing experience below. 

How long have you been based in Beijing for?

One year.

Did you pursue an opportunity to work there or was it presented to you?

Becoming the China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has been a career goal for over a decade, so I was elated to be chosen after a rigorous interview process. I first travelled to China in 1997 as a business reporter on a short assignment and was fascinated but aware of how little I understood because I couldn’t speak the language, or even read street signs. When I returned to Sydney I began studying Mandarin. I have travelled frequently to China since, roaming its back roads from Xinjiang and Yunnan to Tibet. I wrote a book about the experience of young foreigners living in Beijing, the rapid change in the city in the lead-up to the Olympics, and censorship, after a stint working for a Chinese media company in 2004 as part of an Australian government fellowship.

What has surprised you the most since you moved?

When I returned to Beijing in March 2017, I hadn’t been back for a decade and I was stunned by the futuristic architecture in the CBD. But the biggest change has been the rise of the digital lifestyle. Chinese consumers do everything through their smartphone – paying (no one uses cash anymore, they just scan a QR code with their phone at the counter), shopping, playing and socialising.

  Kirsty at the Harbin ice festival in winter, when temperatures drop to -30 degrees Celsius.  

Kirsty at the Harbin ice festival in winter, when temperatures drop to -30 degrees Celsius. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Travelling to different parts of China, it is such a vast and diverse country, and trying to demystify modern China for our readers.

Is there anything in particular that you think Australians should to pay attention to regarding China?

Given China is Australia’s largest trading partner, it is surprising how little is known about modern China by most Australians. Its communist political system is very different to the western system. But over the past decade as young Chinese have travelled the world, for study and as tourists, I have seen Chinese society becoming more globalised.

Have you always been interested in Chinese culture and politics?

My interest in Chinese culture and politics was sparked by visiting Beijing 20 years ago and finding it so strange and different as it was still opening the door to the outside world. Chinese people, particularly beyond the city, also thought I was pretty strange. My cultural understanding is growing, but the politics continues to surprise me.

Did you face any adversity when you first moved to China? What surprised you?

The air pollution in Beijing requires careful planning for families, we all have Air Quality reading apps on our smartphones to check pollution levels during the day, and big air filtering machines in the home and office. When the PM2.5 reading gets to a certain level, we don pollution face masks outside, which are uncomfortable. Children are kept indoors on bad air days. I was surprised to discover indoor playrooms across Beijing, so kids can keep active. The biggest surprise, however, was the record-breaking blue sky days over winter. Beijing’s best-ever winter air quality was produced by a government crackdown on polluting industries. Great timing for my first winter in Beijing with a family.

How rapidly is China’s culture changing? In what areas is it most noticeable?

China moves so fast. The biggest leaps are in digital culture and the rapid adoption of technology by everyone, from young to old.